Local Government Amendment (Rates and Charges) Bill 2021
I rise to speak against this preposterous bill that the opposition have put forward to us, veiled as some sort of credible debate, because it is anything but that. The Greens will not be supporting this blatant attack on the autonomy of Victorian local councils. I have to say that I am quite surprised that Mr Davis has brought this bill before us, given what he has argued for, many times in this place, about the need for communities and therefore councils to have autonomy and greater control over the decisions that affect them. Many times he has said that in this place, but today apparently it does not apply.
We have seen a steady and worrying encroachment from state governments into the affairs of local government, with really detrimental consequences for local communities over many years now, and it accelerated in recent years in the areas of planning and, for example, the method of electing local councillors at elections. The result is that local communities and residents are feeling more and more powerless about the decisions that impact their lives. Power has been taken away from them to have a say in things like local planning, in transport and in the environment just to name a few.
Mr Davis has spoken previously in this place about apparently being concerned about this encroachment on local communities but now wants to do exactly the same. It strikes me that this is once again a disingenuous, cynical and lazy attempt by the opposition to score a few cheap points at the cost of good policy and local democracy.
Just to summarise once again what this bill does: it bans councils from raising any rates, charges or fees on local businesses without the minister’s approval until 2025 and also limits councils so that they cannot reduce any waiver or reduction or refund that a local business might already have. It means effectively that councils will have their hands tied unless the minister okays it.
Some of the problems with this approach are that all councils are different and all councils have different needs and different budgets. They need freedom to make the choices that are right for their areas, and the proposals contained in this bill will actually prevent more projects that will support local businesses, like parklets—using parking spaces for dining—because councils will not be able to afford to do it. We should be promoting this, not preventing councils from being able to support their local businesses. The contradiction, the hypocrisy and the nonsense coming from the opposition is hard to comprehend and consider and accept as some sort of legible argument, because it surely is not.
No-one is arguing that local businesses do not need support, but this bill does not achieve it. Mr Davis’s bill is also a terrible idea because of the context that local councils are in financially. They have very limited levers to fund projects, and rates and charges are just some of the very few tools that they do have. That being said, rates and charges are not just about funding for services and programs; they are also an important tool to drive change. In some instances, for example, parking fees can have an impact on reducing transport emissions, or waste levies can help reduce excess waste generation.
Local councils have already been rate capped against their will, and at the cost of many of them being able to offer the types of programs and services they otherwise would have been able to provide for their community. They are subjected to massive and ongoing cost shifting that has been going on for years. Just take libraries, maternal and child health services and urban planning, all services that the state government asks local councils to deliver and once used to fund significantly but now are services that have to be funded more and more by local councils alone because the state government has withdrawn the levels of funding needed to continue the services for their communities.
Just look at the recent announcement, as an example, by the state government to plant 500 000 trees in Melbourne’s west, which is a really welcome initiative. But it only allocated $5 million towards it. My understanding is that this will only cover the cost of the seedlings, which means that the thousands of dollars it takes to keep one tree alive and the millions it will take to plant and grow these trees to maturity is going to be pushed onto local councils once again without any further funding. It is a project that is set up to fail, all hidden in the fine print, unless the funding can be increased. This is what local councils are subjected to, week after week, by different levels of government. Local councils have picked up the pieces when state and federal governments have abandoned their communities over and over again, and they should be rewarded and supported in their work, not punished for cheap political points, which is what the opposition is doing today.
Let us look at the context as well in which this bill is being proposed by Mr Davis and the opposition and why they argue that it is needed. I know that businesses have done it very hard during the pandemic. Nearly every aspect of life has been disrupted over the last two years—school, work, retail, hospitality, the arts, sport, everything—and we know some parts of our society have faced much more difficult challenges than others. But as we recover we are all adapting to how things will be different in the future, and all industries and businesses are also adapting to business as usual. Even the Parliament has changed the way the chamber works, as we have seen today, managing to create a new hybrid sitting format. Although it did take a while to get there, we did, and it is really a welcome move. It allows more and more members to participate.
Local businesses too have been finding new ways to adapt to the new environment—the need to keep people safe as we still progress through this pandemic. They are finding new ways to utilise outdoor space for COVID-safe dining. This is a really good thing. Imagine this future that is upon us where we are going to see the street being used more and more for socialising and dining and not being taken up by cars that could be parked in other more appropriate places. Apparently parking takes up a fifth of our shopping strips. That is so much space, and on-street parking could be used for dining, pedestrian pathways or safe bike pathways that can activate our local neighbourhoods and shopping strips, which is what local businesses are crying for. This is an opportunity to reimagine our local streets and our neighbourhoods and ensure our shopping strips can thrive, particularly in this period when we are emerging from the pandemic. We should be all putting our heads together to think about ways that we can support local councils to reimagine the future of our streets to support our local businesses and our local communities, not just taking an opportunistic moment to bash up our councils, who are really working very, very hard for our local communities.
And on that point I want to now talk about the example that has been used multiple times in this debate. This whole bill seems to be a kind of veiled attempt at achieving a swipe at a particular council—a very cynical, lazy attempt to score political points. Maybe the opposition did not know what else to do. They do not have a clear agenda or vision, so this is what they come up with—bills that actually cannot have an effect because they amend the wrong bill. They do not actually achieve the support that businesses are crying out for. I do not know who you represent, but you are not representing businesses with this sort of bill that does not actually achieve the outcome you are seeking.
But let us take on the points that both Mr Ondarchie and Mr Finn have raised and the misinformation and the misleading way they have approached this debate in the chamber today. I want to applaud the City of Yarra, who have since day one been trying to find ways to support their local community and their local businesses through what has been a terribly difficult time. They have spoken to their community and they have constantly spoken to their businesses, gaining feedback about what more they could do to support and help their businesses thrive. They are in fact one of the first local councils to make outdoor dining permanent. So the examples you are talking about, which you are misleading and misinforming everyone about, are actually based on an incredible initiative that the City of Yarra are leading in Victoria. They know the future, post pandemic, offers us an opportunity to rethink how businesses can use more space to have more customers to increase and expand their businesses. That is what they are trying to achieve, and they have actually now established a permanent outdoor dining program that more councils, I predict, will be taking up because of the hard work they have done to establish the framework upon which this can become permanent. Most councils had previously set up temporary outdoor dining programs. Yarra has now gone one step further to assure businesses that they can continue to trade in this way. It has been months in the making. They have consulted widely, and they have gained the support from the majority of their community. Last month in fact—
Mr Ondarchie interjected.
Dr RATNAM: Mr Ondarchie, it would pay you to pay attention to the actual detail and truth and not interject. It would pay you not to just talk over me, Mr Ondarchie, if you actually want to understand what is happening in your electorate. I am sorely disappointed that an upper house member for Northern Metropolitan could mislead his community in such a devastating way.
Mr Ondarchie: On a point of order, Acting President, the spokesperson for Yarra council there is indicating that I have misled this house. If she wants to do that, she should do that by substantive motion and not use the debate.
Dr RATNAM: On the point of order, Acting President, I am going to the substance of why I think what Mr Ondarchie presented to this house is misinformation.
Mr Finn: Further on the point of order, Acting President, the inference—well, it was more than an inference; it was a direct accusation—of Dr Ratnam toward Mr Ondarchie was very clear. I heard it from where I am sitting over on the other side of the chamber. Clearly she should withdraw. If she wants to make that sort of accusation, it should be by way of substantive motion. She should withdraw.
The ACTING PRESIDENT (Mr Bourman): That is correct. Dr Ratnam, if you want to make an allegation like that, it should be by way of substantive motion.
Dr RATNAM: Thank you, Acting President. I would like to put some facts and information now on the record. I am allowed to debate this point, aren’t I, through my substantive contribution?
Mr Finn: On the point of order, Acting President, Dr Ratnam put on the record what I regard as a very serious charge against Mr Ondarchie. I believe very strongly that she should withdraw, and I ask you to direct her to do that.
The ACTING PRESIDENT (Mr Bourman): Whilst the allegation was an allegation that was not serious, I can ask Dr Ratnam to withdraw, but I am not going to direct her. I am going to put this down as to the workings of the house. I am not going to direct Dr Ratnam to withdraw, but any further stuff like that needs to be by way of a substantive motion.
Dr RATNAM: Thank you, Acting President. Let us set the record straight. Yarra council has conducted extensive consultation with their community and local businesses. Last month they decided to waive all fees associated with outdoor trading until April 2022, so that means businesses pay nothing over this summer in this really critical period when businesses are going to re-emerge from this really difficult period over the pandemic. They have set up a permanent program, and they have understood through their consultations that businesses understand the need for some cost recovery. They consulted. They talked with actual businesses, who told them they understood that council will need to pursue some sort of cost recovery. Sixty per cent of the businesses they surveyed said they were willing to pay $500 or more per month for the use of outdoor dining spaces. Residents and their businesses understand that there needs to be a fair and equitable sharing of public space—because this is what we are talking about: public space. Those opposite might not understand the notion of community and the commons and sharing public space, but I am glad my colleagues at the City of Yarra understand this concept and can respect the need for the fair and equitable use of public space.
Their program includes discounts and options for future fee waivers. They are going to be in constant discussion with their businesses as they figure out new ways they can support and help their businesses thrive, starting with a permanent outdoor dining program, one of the first in Victoria, setting up the template for councils to adopt this program and expand this program right across Victoria. They have done the hard work of setting up the fee structure, which is a tiered fee structure, so the numbers that have been bandied around are not the actual fees that businesses will pay. It is a tiered fee structure based on the level of traffic in that street or the level of business activity in those different regions, and it is actually a fair system to ensure that people are able to use these outdoor dining spaces and that the public are able to see a fair and equitable sharing of the public space that they too have an interest in.
I note that my colleagues opposite did not once mention comparable fees—for example, that the City of Melbourne charges $7992 per bay per year. But there is no mention of that or outrage about the City of Melbourne somehow not representing their residents. So it is very selective: these are numbers the opposition is using just for an opportunistic moment to have a go at a local council to somehow make themselves look more relevant when they are anything but. The people of Northern Metro are going to be deeply disappointed that one of their elected representatives, who they are counting on to support them through the recovery from the pandemic, is letting their community down by not portraying what is actually occurring and what their councils are doing to support the local businesses and is instead peddling selective information and exaggerations just to be able to make their opportunistic points. But the record now states and we now have clearly what the City of Yarra are doing, which is setting up a really sustainable model that future councils, other Victorian councils, will be able to look to and adopt in their own communities.
We have also seen that some councils have been able to develop these programs thanks to subsidies from the state government. Not all councils were in receipt of those subsidies, but it has recently been expanded. I thank the Minister for Local Government, who in his contribution talked about the work the state government is now doing to expand some of that funding so that more councils can offer further subsidies and fee waivers, which councils are wanting to do. They are asking for the ability to subsidise and support their businesses, but they need to do it in partnership with the state government. And I thank the Minister for Local Government for his vote of support for local government in his contribution, because we certainly did not hear that from the opposition, who seem intent on positioning themselves as somehow heroes when they are not actually doing the work to support our local councils and local businesses. Our local councils are actually doing that hard work, and the opposition is not representing their hard work.
On that note and in conclusion, I would like to thank every local council and our local councillors, who have been working tirelessly in such difficult circumstances, particularly over the last two years, at the coalface with their communities, hearing what their residents and businesses are going through and trying so many different things to be able to support them because they want their local communities to thrive. They care about them so much, they listen to them every single day, and I want to thank them for their incredible work. They are the heart of democracy in this state, and we should be doing more to support our local councils, not using moments like this to use them as a political punching bag, which is what the opposition seem intent on doing today.